Wow did I struggle with this book. I had never read anything by Nabokov and this book had many positive reviews, but it did nothing for me. It was a challenge to follow the storyline and the many random asides did not click for me. I have a hard time with poetry, and the four cantos that set up the main part of the story did not stick with me. I think reading this as an ebook negatively impacted the experience because I didn't have the freedom to easily turn back and forth to reference the poem while reading through the notes. A big disappointment for me.
(Original Review, 1992-02-10)
I can speak and write English pretty well, and I am completely lacking in Nabokov's talent for prose. I do, however, wonder whether the fact that English was his fourth or fifth language may have enabled him to approach writing in a different way. He seems to be very aware of structural features, and I wonder if this skill came out of his ability to speak numerous languages? I'd have to say that's undoubtedly true: the more languages one knows the more one becomes aware of how each one works and, often, greater facility in manipulating them to one's uses.
If you're into stuff like this, you can read the full review.
(Review for Speak, Memory only: four stars)
It was a pleasure to read Nabokov after so long. I forgot how easy it is to get carried along by the flow and particularities of his prose, sometimes to the point of losing the meaning of what's being expressed. Speak, Memory is a kind of memoir of Nabokov's childhood through his family's exile in Europe following the Russian Revolution. I learned (or was reminded of) a lot that sheds light on his writing, such as the fact that he had synesthesia (syllables and letters had colors). He read and wrote English before Russian but later lamented that his English skills did not match those in Russian (if only I read Russian!). At one point he states that once he used a detail of his life for his fiction, it felt like it was no longer his.
If you're familiar with Nabokov, you'll enjoy the passages detailing or referencing his passion for butterfly hunting. In fact my favorite line in the book concerns it: "America has shown even more of this morbid interest in my retiary activities than other countries have--perhaps because I was in my forties when I came there to live, and the older the man, the queerer he looks with a butterfly net in his hand." Lol, indeed.
I was less interested in some of the earlier chapters that focus on his extended family, but there were still fascinating stories to be had, and his prose is always worth it.